“If you…” Diana stared at the man in front of her. The most damning evidence against him in the trial had been his own statement that he was responsible.
“I fucked up.” Viteri took a few deep breaths. “He trusted me, and I fucked up, I…” He exhaled slowly. “I, uh…” He swallowed. “Alright. Where were we?”
The move would take a bit of time, and involve some reorganization. So far, the only one they’d told about the engagement was his mother, and she understood their reason for keeping it a secret. Abigail Viteri approved wholeheartedly. She wasn’t happy about their desire for a small wedding, but she accepted that as well. And best of all, Tobias was absolutely alright with the idea of her moving with them, even going so far as to suggest getting a place where they could add an apartment for her onto the property itself.
He looked down at his sketchbook and frowned at it. “Please tell me you aren’t planning on building us robot children.”
Zeke chuckled at the sound of Tobias’s voice, then looked up at his fiance. “It’s a drone. The idea of it is an advance scout, so I want to keep it compatible with human movement to test routes and safety. Plus, that shortens the learning curve for handling the bio-feedback.” He flipped to the other drawing. “This one is for underwater exploration, so it doesn’t need that limitation. Needs better sensors. Sonar and the like.”
“Human brain isn’t exactly wired for sonar.”
“You’d think that, except studies on some blind people suggest that humans do at least have a passive sonar ability that they can adapt by whistling.” Zeke shrugged, then shifted a little for Tobias to sit next to him. He frowned a little when Tobias didn’t immediately relax. “What’s wrong?”
“Had a chat with my dad.” Tobias exhaled. “Paden’s been talking to him and he called up to set me straight. I uh…” Tobias shrugged. “I hung up on my own father, mid word, and…” He shook his head. “And I’m mad at myself for not being mad at myself over it, if that makes any fucking sense.”
“This still about those DoD guys?”
“They want to buy your VI nerve map thing.” Tobias leaned into him as Tobias stretched his legs onto the couch. “They are having trouble reverse engineering your heuristic algorithms.” He looked up at Zeke. “They can’t make it think, and if it can’t think it can’t learn, and if it can’t learn —”
“It can’t adapt to the host.” Zeke nodded. “Let me guess, they want to create a robot army.”
“Well, nobody came right out and said, robot army…” Tobias shrugged. “But I think they want to create a robot army.”
“Maybe we should create our own robot army first. Program it to go around sweeping…” Zeke frowned, then pulled his sketchbook to him. He started making notes.
“Zeke, you kinda cut off in the middle of —”
“Okay, what if I did make the undersea one autonomous?”
“You want to create a —”
“A janitorial unit. Self directed, gets trash out of the sea. Heuristic programming can teach it to avoid dangers, we can have it collect the waste and then figure out some better disposal…” He sketched, writing ideas and connecting them with lines. “Recyling, obviously, but it could also do repair work and oh, hey, if it could recharge itself with a combination of solar and tidal power…”
“I’m torn.” Tobias sat up. “One one hand, we are cleaning up the environment. On the other hand, this sounds like the start of some dystopian robot overlord story.”
“It won’t be a true AI, and there will be safeguards hard-coded. That’s the primary difference between an AI and a VI. Both can learn, but only an AI can change underlying programming. Self-determination, the hallmark of consciousness.”
“Throw marketing a bone. Make it look cute. Like one of those clownfish things. Nemo.”
“Jellyfish would be a better design.”
“Jellyfish aren’t cute.”
“I’ll let Cort’s wife design the outer carapace. I mean, with parameters, but —”
“Anyone ever told you you’re adorable when you’re saving the world?”
“Bullshit. That would never hold up in court and you know it.”
“Tobias, I really don’t understand why you won’t play ball here.” Paden folded his arms. It took Zeke a few minutes to recognize two of the men behind him. Timothy Bradford and Elliot Mercer. So Paden’s old gang still worked with him. He took just a tiny bit of glee in noting that Timothy had a gut and was balding. Elliot still looked like he’d just stepped off a magazine cover though. Fucker.
“Last I checked, Paden, this was supposedly a free country. Isn’t that what your campaign slogan? Keep government out of business, let the market decide, blah blah blah?” Tobias leaned on his desk. “Practice what you fucking preach, and knock off the empty threats.”
“Last warning, Tobias.” Paden shook his head. “After today, we’re taking the gloves off.”
“Bite me.” Tobias glared.
He waited until the men had left the office. As much as he hated leaving Tobias to deal with them on his own, Tobias had insisted. Tobias smiled as soon as he saw Zeke. “They are going to try messing with the labs. Finding excuses to shut down projects for ‘inspection’ until we give them what they want.” He exhaled, then nodded to Zeke. “Guess moving the company is going to work out for multiple reasons.”
“I’m sorry your brother is an asshole.” Zeke put a hand on Tobias’s shoulder.
“Remember Arlo?” Tobias raised an eyebrow.
“Arlo Velin?” Zeke frowned. “Isn’t he the one that killed the class hamsters?”
“Tossed them in with the snake. Yeah, that’s him.” Tobias gave a small shake of his head. “He just got out of jail again and…” Tobias trailed off.
“He applied for a job in our security department.” Tobias looked up at him. “I turned him down, but I’ve seen him around the building a few times now. Lobby, parking lot. I think…” He leaned against the wall. “He went down for breaking and entering.”
“You think they might try breaking into the labs?”
“Break in, confiscate shit, get access to our R&D that way…” Tobias sighed. “Maybe I’m just paranoid, but Paden’s noise is starting to sound like actual threats.”
“By this time next year, we’ll be a thousand miles away.” Zeke touched his hand. “Together.”
“Just be careful, alright?” Tobias moved his hand atop Zeke’s. “I don’t trust them.”
They’d stepped up their games a little. Nothing too rough, just some bondage and the occasional spanking scene. Still testing, finding their limits. Tobias didn’t care for anything involving breath play, Zeke was paranoid about anything involving suspension. Usually, they played at Zeke’s place. Tobias’s house was used for entertainment far to often for them to take the risk of playing there.
He secured Tobias’s wrists. Above his head and spread, but not quite enough to strain Tobias’s body. Just enough to render him helpless…
Viteri trailed off. He swallowed a few times. “He trusted me. Someone you love puts their safety in your hands like that, they are your responsibility. Completely your responsibility. You’re supposed to take care of them, to…” His shoulders shook. “He trusted me, and I…”
“Mr. Viteri…” She let him get himself back under control. “Mr. Viteri…” Diana kept her voice gentle. “What did you do?”
“I…” Viteri took a ragged breath. “I answered the door.”
They stared at each other when the doorbell rang. Tobias frowned. “It’s ten o’clock at night.”
“Probably a neighbor.”
“Ignore it. They’ll assume you’re asleep or not home.” Tobias pulled a little at the restraints keeping him in place.”
“I’ll go shoo them away.” Zeke stepped away.
“Hey.” Tobias shook his head. Then he chuckled. “Just don’t get to talking about your inventions and forget I’m all trussed up here.”
“Forget you’re naked and at my mercy?” Zeke kissed him as the bell rang again. “Not a chance.”
He headed to the front door, then looked out the window. The man standing on the porch looked vaguely familiar. Zeke frowned, then unlocked the door. “Can I help you?”
“Zeke Viteri?” The man raised an eyebrow.
“Look, it’s late, and whatever you need can wait until morning. You…” Zeke frowned when the man immediately stepped forward to block him from closing the door. “You need to…” He trailed off as three other men stepped around the house. He recognized all of them. Paden. Elliot. Timothy.
“Mr. Viteri.” Paden nodded as the man at the door shoved his way into the house. “Excuse the short notice, but my brother has been preventing you and I from talking.”
“Grady, I don’t know —” Zeke went silent as the man who’d pushed his way inside pulled a gun and aimed it as his midsection.
“Zeke, you remember Arlo, don’t you?” Paden patted the man’s shoulder, then narrowed his eyes at Zeke. “Have a seat on the couch. I’d like to discuss a…” He shrugged. “Business opportunity.”
Zeke was very conscious of the fact that a few rooms away, Tobias was tied up in a bondage frame, completely helpless and very exposed. He needed to keep these guys from realizing that, or shit was going to get bad. So he shut up, and led them into the living room, further away from Tobias. Before he could sit on the couch, Arlo grabbed his arm. He thought about grabbing for the gun, then realized there was also a gun in Elliot’s hand. “Hands behind your back.” Arlo’s said the words as though he were vaguely bored by the situation.
Obeying just got his hands cuffed behind him. Then he was shoved onto the couch. Paden gave him a friendly smile. A politician’s practiced smile. “Mr. Viteri, you understand my concern here. You wouldn’t pass a background check to work on any Department of Defense contract, and yet you’re the one designing these marvels. Tobias has been denying you all kinds of opportunities to…” Paden shrugged. “Spread your wings.”
“Tobias isn’t the one pointing guns at me.”
“You’ve designed a prototype virtual intelligence, Mr. Viteri. Tobias has refused to allow any government access to that prototype. I’m hoping you’re a more reasonable man.”
“I don’t keep any of my plans here, Mr. Grady.”
“No, but you do keep them encrypted. I’m going to need the access information, Mr. Viteri. I’d rather not have to shoot the golden goose to get…” Grady looked around the room as he spoke. He frowned when he looked at the side table. Zeke glanced at it, then felt a chill. Tobias’s coat was still laying on the table, with his cell phone and keys next to it. “Mr. Viteri, is my brother here?”
“He was by earlier. He must have…”
Paden stood. “Arlo, find him.”
Elliot Mercer pulled him into the room and shoved him to his knees. The gun was pressed against the back of his neck. Paden was staring at Tobias. And the look on Tobias’s face was…
Once again, Viteri went silent. It took him a few moments to get himself collected again. Diana gave him the time. “He knew.” Viteri swallowed. “He knew what was going to happen the moment his brother walked into that room. I could see it in his eyes. I used to…” He shook his head. “Back in high school, I’d have told you they had the same eyes. That lovely blue, like the ocean at the finest beach in the world. But that moment, their eyes were…” He exhaled. “They were nothing alike. Tobias on his worst day could never look at somebody the way Paden was looking at him.”
The first blow rocked Tobias’s head back. Tobias lost his balance and only the restraints kept him in place. Zeke struggled, but Arlo and Elliot kept him in place. “Let him alone.”
“Fucking faggot.” Paden backhanded Tobias again, and Zeke heard the sound of his lover’s nose shattering. Tobias spat out a mouthful of blood.
“I’ll give you the damn encryption, just leave him alone.” Zeke tried pulling free, then started screaming when he saw Paden pick up a wrench. One of his wrenches.
He kept screaming as…
She stared at Viteri. “Paden beat him.”
“Paden didn’t stop at just beating him.” Viteri’s voice was quiet, almost eerily calm. “They tortured him, kept torturing him even after I gave them the codes, the encryptions, anything they wanted. Even Arlo got a sick look on his face when Timothy…” He made a soft growling sound. “Timothy raped him, then sodomized him with a hammer. All I could do was be thankful Tobias wasn’t coherent at that point. Then Paden started hitting him again and I realized…” He exhaled. “Paden was killing him. I managed to slip free, and charged at Paden, knocking him away. That’s when Elliot…” He took another deep breath. “I heard the bullet, felt like I’d been punched, but I didn’t realize at first that they’d shot me. All I was thinking was I had to get them away from Tobias, but my hands were cuffed…”
“The police report says —”
“I know what the police report says, ma’am.” Viteri met her eyes. “They got a 911 call from Elliot. Paden claimed that Tobias had called him for help, and they’d come over to find…” His fists clenched. “They claimed I’d beaten and raped him. That Elliot had shot me in defense. That…” He exhaled. “I should never have left him tied up alone. Not for a moment. He was my responsibility and I just knelt there while they…” He looked up at her. “You have the trial notes. You know what happened next. Mom had a heart attack when she learned…” He looked away. “You know they didn’t even tell me she was dead until after her funeral.”
Diana paused. She took a sip of her water, then offered him his and gave him a few minutes to collect himself. Nearly ten minutes passed before he spoke again. “You know the bit that comes next.”
“You were convicted.”
“Rape. Assault. Assault with a deadly weapon. Kidnapping. Extortion.” His voice was bitter. “All of it. I think they even tagged a jaywalking charge on there. Enough to ensure I was never, ever getting out of prison.”
“Until you escaped.” She nodded. “What —”
“You’re getting a bit ahead, ma’am. I’ll get there.”